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Leading people too smart to be led

by Robert C. Wolcott

February 6, 2017 | 11:57 am
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Have you ever wanted to blow up the bureaucracy at your organization? That’s what the founders of the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, did. Founded in 1984 by scientists, including four Nobel laureates, SFI is one of the world’s leading research institutions, but it’s unlike any university. Born partly out of frustration with traditional university bureaucracies, SFI has no departments, no formal hierarchies and no tenure.

Shepherding this transdisciplinary work is SFI’s president and evolutionary geneticist David Krakauer.

I wanted to know how Krakauer leads a wildly creative, highly effective organization. Six things he told me about can be transferrable to leaders in any organization:

1. SEE YOURSELF AS “A COLONEL WITH AN ARMY OF GENERALS.” Humility is an essential prerequisite for a leader who’s in the middle of a Maelstrom of talent. “Lead by example and set a tone,” encouraged Krakauer. “Great talent must be inspired to be part of your organization.”

2. DON’T VALORIZE FAILURE. Few brilliant people are really motivated by the prospect of failing. Instead of celebrating failure, we need to reframe the challenge. “Here we celebrate success. We also celebrate experiments,” Krakauer explains.

3. ENCOURAGE SMART RECKLESSNESS. Each of us has a crazy idea from time to time. We should probably share them more often than we do. Krakauer advises leaders to create opportunities where people are expected to share their “reckless” ideas. With this expectation, many more novel ideas are likely to emerge.

4. THE ORGANIZATIONSHOULD BE A CRUCIBLE, NOT A CRIB. Encouraging rigorous, constructive debate is indispensable to navigating challenges of high uncertainty, from extending the bounds of knowledge to scaling a business. Argument is “how we come to understand things,” observes Krakauer, a tough and contentious critic who sees SFI’s role as a crucible, a place where ideas are put to the test.

5. SEARCH FOR “STUPID” PRACTICES AS MUCH AS YOU SEEK BEST PRACTICES. “We have hundreds of organizations researching intelligence. Why don’t we have at least a few researching stupidity?” asks Krakauer. “After all, stupidity is at the heart of why and how things go wrong.” Anyone operating in a large enterprise feels the truth of Krakauer’s quip. Overcoming collective stupidity on an ongoing basis is a role for leadership in any organization.

6. PERSIST. Early on in his career, Krakauer had had serious reservations about how far his studies of complexity theory could advance. But he persisted. He told me he kept going because of “curiosity, a desire to understand the universe … pushing the boundaries of what you can understand on a fundamental level.” That’s good advice for leaders, too. On days when nothing is going right, focus on persistence. If the vision and purpose are sound, you may just get further than you thought you could.


by Robert C. Wolcott

February 6, 2017 | 11:57 am
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